The Dominican Sisters of San Rafael have made the decision to sell their retreat center, Santa Sabina, which is situated near Dominican University.
Carla Kovack, the prioress general of the order, stated in an email last week that after careful consideration and prayer, the congregation's leadership has concluded that they can no longer sustain the ministry of Santa Sabina Center. This decision was influenced by the declining number of members in the order and the escalating costs of maintaining the center.
Originally built in 1939 to house young women preparing to join the order, since 1970 the nuns have utilized the building to run a retreat open to seekers from various spiritual traditions. The center's architectural style is inspired by the Dominican monastery in Stoke-on-Trent, England. It was named after the Basilica of Saint Sabina, an ancient church on the Aventine Hill in Rome, which serves as the mother church of the Dominicans. The facility comprises a chapel for 40 to 60 people, a prayer room of similar capacity, a conference room for 100, a dining area for 60, 38 bedrooms, a library, a fireplace-equipped pillow room adjacent to the library, a smaller meeting space for about a dozen people, three staff offices, an inner courtyard garden, a straw bale hermitage, and a yurt.
Kovack, who entered the order in 1964, was once a novice at Santa Sabina, along with 42 other young women. At its peak in 1965, the congregation had 376 sisters. Kovack fondly remembered those days, characterized by full-length habits and veils, beginning each day with an early prayer hour. They received education in scriptures, philosophy, ethics, and theology from visiting professors, and took turns with weekly cleaning duties. They also enjoyed activities like volleyball and walks in the nearby hills, but Kovack's favorite place was the chapel, with its clear windows that offered a view of eucalyptus trees swaying in storms.
In the 1970s, the number of women joining the order started to dwindle, prompting the transformation of the building into a retreat for individuals with diverse spiritual interests. The Dominican Sisters of San Rafael have always embraced various paths to the divine, welcoming groups from around the world over the past 25 years. They recognize the sanctity of the space upon entering.
While the center has hosted a wide range of spiritual gatherings, it's not exclusively designated for Catholics. People from various traditions and backgrounds have found solace in this sacred space. Retreats led by figures like Mark Nepo, a renowned poet and spiritual guide, have drawn participants seeking wisdom from diverse traditions. However, due to the challenges of maintaining such a large-scale operation and a decline in membership to 56, the Dominican Sisters have decided to sell the center. The practicalities of managing the center in the future, along with changing demographics of retreat participants, played a role in this decision. The sisters are now seeking a buyer who will continue to use the center for spiritual education and furthering peace and justice. They've enlisted the services of Dominic Dutra, a specialist in real estate for faith-based organizations, to facilitate the sale. The asking price has not been disclosed publicly.
As for the future, the sisters remain uncertain. Over the past 25 years, new members have joined at a slow pace. The latest addition was in 2019, and recruitment has been challenging due to safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Marin Independent Journal first reported the news earlier last week.